Sunday, September 25, 2016

Truly Life changing

We are so blessed that we were invited to perform Hajj this year, the holy pilgrimage to the Kaa'ba in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. It is a trip that took a lot of preparation, both physical and spiritual. The few photographs I took really don't do justice to the trip, since it was an experience that transcends just a few photographs, but I can say in the true sense of the word, that it was life changing. Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam, to be performed at least once in a Muslim's lifetime. If performed with good Niyyah (intentions), it will wipe away all sins committed prior to the pilgrimage, and you return as pure as the day you were born. Of course, it is essential to continue to live your life as a good Muslim, trying to minimize negative actions, and essentially following the guidance obtain from our holy book, the Quran, and the Sunnah, the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, PBUH (peace be upon him).

We started the trip one day early, due to the potential threat of inclement weather in New York. Instead of departing on Sunday morning, we booked a flight for Saturday afternoon from Birmingham, in order to reach NY ahead of any storms. Fortunately the weather remained calm, but we were spared the stress of the 'what ifs'. As is typically prior to a long journey, sleep did not come easily for the couple of nights prior to our travel, so we were pretty tired before we even boarded our flight from NYC to Madinah. Caffeine, of course, helps.

Our flight departed just after sunset, so we had the opportunity to enjoy the pretty view of the sun setting over our prospective plane, just before we boarded.

Our flight took us directly to Madinah, where we were scheduled to spend a few days prior to departing to Jeddah buy plane, and ultimately to Makkah where the actual rituals of Hajj are performed. Arriving at Madinah airport:

We took buses to our hotel in Madinah. The unnerving thing was having to hand over our passports to the Saudi officials as soon as we boarded the bus, but we were promised that they were in good hands and would be closely monitored.

For the first night we were given a small room, facing inwards, so our view comprised a few interior walls of the hotel. But on the following day we received a new room assignment, and this was the view of Masjid e Nabawi (the mosque of the Holy Prophet PBUH) from our room:

This is how the courtyard looks during daylight hours; it is shaded but multiple automated umbrellas, which keep the ground cool, and people can pray in the courtyard, without being scorched from the sun. Of course, the inside of the mosque is also open for prayer, but many Muslims preferred to pray out in the open here. At dusk, the umbrellas all closed down into pillars so you could see the courtyard.

And at night, as the lights went on, it was a beautiful sight. This is one of the minarets at night:

A wider view of the mosque:

We were blessed to be able to enjoy this view throughout our stay in Madinah, just by stepping towards the window of our room. The inside of the mosque was beautiful too:

Due to our schedule, and the days we spent in Madinah, we had a couple of days when the mosque was not crowded at all. It was an amazing experience to pray behind the Imam here, five times per day, something that is extremely difficult to do while living at a certain distance from our local mosque in the United states, and of course, with our work schedules.

After an entire day of prayer and relaxation, we visited some holy sites in the areas surrounding Madinah. We started the trip early in the morning, in order to be done before breakfast, and before the temperature hit the typical 115-118 Fahrenheit we experienced during our entire stay in Saudi Arabia. The first stop was at Masjid Quba, the first mosque in Madinah. We made prayers here, which is Sunnah, i.e., was performed by the Holy Prophet PBUH.

After praying, we took some time to shop for dates at the stores built around the mosque. You can't leave Saudi Arabia without stocking up on dates! Then we drove by (but didn't stop at) Masjid al Qiblatain, another historic mosque. This is the only mosque that has two qiblas (prayer directions). This is the mosque where historically the entire congregation changed their direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah, after Muhammad PBUH received a command from Allah.

We also drove by a location where the Battle of the Trench had happened. Finally, we stopped at Uhud, another historic battle site. Here, we made prayers for the martyrs of the battle, where many Muslim lives were lost.

Currently there is a mosque under construction there.

We spent the rest of the day making prayers at Masjid e Nabawi, and attending lectures from some very learned Imams, some were guests and others traveled with us from the United States. This is how we spent most of the time in Madinah. The lectures were extremely insightful, and have had a great impact on making me realize what improvements I need to make in my own life. Between lectures and prayers in congregation, we rarely got over 2 hours of sleep straight, but there was an amazing burst of adrenaline that kept us going.

One night at midnight we had the opportunity to attended a guided walking tour of Masjid e Nabawi and its surrounding areas. We learned a lot about the history of the mosque and its expansion.

We walked to the exhibition of the glorious names of Allah, the glorious names of Muhammad PBUH, and the Quran museum, with the plan to return later and actually see the exhibits.

Here, at a distance, you can see Baqee, where 10,000 of the companions of the Prophet PBUH are buried:

The green dome over the Rawdah of the Holy Prophet PBUH (where he is buried) was built in the time of the Ottoman Empire:

Another one of the highlights of the time spent in Madinah was the opportunity to spend Jum'aa (Friday) prayers there. We arrived at the mosque a couple of hours early, so that we could find space to sit inside before the start of prayers.

It's quite surreal, walking underneath the shade of these huge umbrellas. Zakir and I dressed in local attire; it was quite amusing when several ladies started to talk to me in Arabic. Of course I didn't understand a single word! But I suppose it means we fit right in!

The rituals of Hajj begin with the Haji (person performing Hajj) changing into Ihram. For women, this is essentially showering and putting on clothes that appropriately cover their body, except face and hands. However, for men, this comprises two pieces of unstitched clothing, one worn to cover the lower part of the body including your knees, and the other for the upper torso. Men are prohibited to wear anything on their head in the state of Ihram. Showering and changing is permitted while wearing Ihram, but no products can be applied that contain any kind of fragrance. We changed into Ihram in Madinah, before heading to the airport to fly to Jeddah.

We recited the intention of Hajj and Umrah, collectively, while on the plane. Arriving in Jeddah:

We took chartered buses to our hotel in Makkah, and again were assigned a room with a beautiful view of the Haram, or Masjid al Haram. Even more spectacular, since we were on the 43rd floor. I don't think I've ever lived that high up before! There is expansion going on around the Haram, so the crane did mar our view a bit, but still, amazing! In the center is the Kaa'ba, where tawaf is performed (circling the Kaaba seven times while reciting prayers). This was also part of our Umrah. Since there were few people there the first day we arrived, the ritual did not take long. It was followed by drinking Zamzam water and Sa'i, which was walking seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa. I admit, it was a little hard with my sprained ankle (it happened two weeks before our trip), but we completed it, all, during the first day in Makkah.

After Sa'i, inside the haram:

And this is the famous clock tower in Makkah, in front of Masjid al Haram:

The Kaa'ba by night from our room:

After performing Umrah we traveled early next morning to Arafat, which is the most essential part of performing Hajj. The Hujjaj spend the day and most of the night in tents. The first part of the day is spent resting while the important part starts after the midday prayers. The day was spent remembering Allah, and reciting prayers, both personally and collectively, as well as recitation of the Holy Quran and a couple of very inspiring lectures. The tent we had was well decorated and even had air conditioning!

In the evening we headed to Muzdalifah for a few hours. In this location, there are no tents, and very few amenities. We spent the evening and part of the night, resting on rugs in the open air. It was quite a humbling experience. You can tell we look pretty worn out! After leaving here we traveled by train to Mena, to perform stoning of the Jamaraat, another ritual of Hajj.

We returned to Makkah during the morning of Eid, and had to walk a quite a distance to our hotel because of the road closures during Eid prayers. We again performed tawaf; this time the Haram was much more crowded, and then we removed our Ihram garments back at the hotel. Part of coming out of Ihram is that men either cut their hair or shave their heads, and women cut about an inch of their hair too. I admit, Zakir was relieved to be back in 'real' clothes!

In the evening we traveled to Mena, where we again spent time in tents, listened to lectures by scholars, and performed prayers in congregation. We also has some opportunity for quiet prayer and meditation. We returned to Makkah for a few hours, and then back to Mena to spend the entire night in the camp. This night coincided with the 30th anniversary of Dar el Salam travel, the agency we used to plan our trip, so there was a special celebration, and a huge cake!

I have to say, we were very well fed during our entire trip, with something for every palate during each meal. We again performed stoning of the Jamaraat (a total of three times). Last year, sadly, there had been a stampede during this ritual, and several Hujjaj had lost their lives. This year was much better organized, in spite of the huge number of people there. Returning to the Mena camp after stoning the Jamaraat:

In Makkah, there we many more people at the Haram, performing tawaf. Our last part of Hajj in Makkah was returning to the Kaa'ba for our third tawaf. We actually performed this on a higher level in the mosque, due to the mass of Hujjaj on the lower levels. So it took over an hour and a half, compared to the twenty or so minutes during our first day, but hey, that's just extra time to make prayers! You can see how much busier it was during the day and night:

After Tawaf al Wida (the farewell tawaf), we packed up and prepared to travel to Jeddah, where we would be boarding our flight to JFK airport. We met with friends at dinner time and had the chance to snap a few photos. We actually made great connections on this trip and hope to remain in touch with the friends we made.

 Headed from Makkah to Jeddah:

So, we arrived at JFK, and took a shuttle to La Guardia, headed back to Birmingham, via Chicago. Of course, by the time we reached La Guardia we had been awake for about 24 hours straight (who can sleep in cramped plane seats anyway?), so it was back to square one.

A little caffeine to keep us going!

It still feels a little surreal that Zakir and I have completed the most important journey of our lives. I believe that, in many ways, these two weeks have been truly life changing, and I am already trying to implement what I have learned in my day to day life. Praying that Allah gives me the strength to do so!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

End of a long summer

After three whole months of summer break, Bilal will be finally heading back to school tomorrow. Yesterday we ent to Paine to drop off some school supplies and to meet his teacher, Mrs. McL.

Trussville is going from one elementary school to three! Work has continued throughout the summer, but everything is still not quite complete. There is still some construction going on, and I'm sure transition will be a bit of a challenge. But we are READY! Yes, time to get back into a routine.

This evening, we decided to celebrate the last day of summer vacation with a trip to Coldstone Creamery for ice cream. Ice cream makes everything just that much better! And it was a chance for Nana and Nani to sample some new flavors too.

Looking forward for a great start to the new school year!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

When plans change....

.... we make it fun!

Bilal was looking forward to having a pre-birthday sleepover with his cousins. For certain unavoidable reasons, it didn't materialize. He was obviously very disappointed; he'd been waiting for them all day and was so excited! So what did we do? Mama and baby decided to have a sleepover instead. And Baba was generous enough to give up his space in our bed and sleep in Bilal's room instead.

We started off with an intense game of Phase 10, between Safa, Bilal, and myself.

We didn't get through the entire game; ten phases take far too look when it's already a couple of hours past bedtime, but as has been happening quite often recently, I was decimated by the two genius players.

After the game, Bilal and I settled down for some snuggles, (and selfies), before calling it a night.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, I awoke to Bilal sleeping with his head firmly planted on my belly. Not very comfortable, but sort of cute, until I finally had to roll away to find a more comfortable position.

This morning though, this view really warmed my heart:

My little guy lying next to me, snuggled up with blankie and his favorite elephant, Fuzzy. Hard to believe that he will be turning 10 in just one more day!

We had a fun night, and made some great memories in the process!

Friday, July 8, 2016

There is still hope

I love my daughter's style of writing. Although she doesn't often publicly share what she writes, some of her pieces will really strike a chord. This is one such piece, about growing up Muslim in America. It's simple and brief, but heartfelt, and certainly worth a read.

There is too much hate in the world, there is too much prejudice and discrimination, based on religion, gender and sexual orientation, and skin color. We all know someone personally, who has experienced profiling, and often times it is us who are the ones being profiled.

It is, however the younger generation that gives us much hope. I hope and pray that their voices are never silenced. Because honestly, without hope for the future, what do we have?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Eid al Fitr 2016

We celebrated the end of Ramadan with a large gathering at the Civic Center, where Eid prayers were performed. Ramadan was a good month, full of prayers and blessings. Safa and Hamza have been completing their fasts with us for years, but this year, Bilal was also able to complete 2 full fasts, along with several half fasts, where he'd get up early morning with us for breakfast, but eat a few hours before sunset, instead of fasting until sunset. He started doing that sporadically last year, in preparation for when he is required to fast. He was 9 this year, so fasting is still not obligatory for him.

After prayers, we came home, and the boys spent a few hours assembling the Lego models, which were part of Bilal's Eid gifts.

It looks like Hamza was doing most of the building!

In the evening we met with a group of friends for dinner, at a local Indian restaurant. For the last few years, Ramadan and Eid have been falling over the kids' summer break, which is based on the lunar calendar. Makes for long days of fasting, but little more of any other activities required. Next year, they will fall 10 days earlier, and so on, since the average lunar year is 354 days, instead of 365.

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